Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sperry, Kettering, Wright, and Arnold: Early Innovators and Advocates of Cruise Missiles and Drones


The Kettering Bug, 1918
Inspiration for Cruise Missiles and Drones

Today cruise missiles are an important part of the Free World's arsenal and the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (commonly called drones) ranging from military tactical operations to domestic law enforcement, and even for commercial or recreational purposes continues to explode. All of this grew from research and innovation that began before the First World War and exploded as America saw that the nation might be drawn into the conflict.

American inventor Elmer Sperry, known as the father of modern navigation technology, was among the first to tackle the problem of automatic stabilization. In 1908 he patented a gyroscope that replaced a ship’s magnetic compass. After the Navy installed his invention on the battleship Delaware in 1911, Sperry spotted another opportunity in the nascent aviation industry. He developed a gyrostabilizer that would enable aircraft to fly straight and level without pilot intervention. His equally brilliant son Lawrence dramatically demonstrated his father’s invention in 1914, flying a gyrostabilized Curtiss C-2 flying boat above the Seine River while holding his hands raised above his head. On his second pass, Lawrence repeated the trick—only this time his mechanic was standing on the plane’s lower wing. The demo helped father and son win the Collier Trophy that year for the most noteworthy achievement in aviation.

Lawrence and Elmer Sperry

In 1915 the Navy hired Sperry, who had the help of Lawrence, to build a “flying bomb.” The idea was to pack a Curtiss N-9 floatplane with dynamite and have it fly in a straight line until a mechanical device that counted propeller revolutions cut fuel to the engine. Sperry conducted a series of largely unsuccessful test flights in 1917. Only one unmanned N-9 managed to escape from its catapult launch, and it was last seen cruising over the naval militia station at Bay Shore, N.Y., at 4,000 feet heading east.

Charles Kettering
Not to be outdone by the Navy, the Army sponsored a competing design, nicknamed the “Kettering Bug” after its designer, Charles Kettering, a prominent inventor from Dayton, Ohio. Kettering collaborated with Orville Wright to produce what is generally regarded as the first practical example of an unmanned aircraft, although some argue it’s better described as the first cruise missile, since it couldn’t be controlled in flight. With a wingspan of six feet and a small two-stroke engine built by the Ford Motor Company, the Bug could carry a 250-pound warhead. The aircraft was powered by a 40-horsepower engine, which allowed it to fly a top speed of 50 mph; it utilized a track and dolly system similar to the Wright Brothers’ aircraft in 1903. The bug would carry an aerial torpedo with a warhead packed with 180 lbs of explosives. The guidance system was provided by a small on board gyroscope, and before takeoff technicians would determine the distance to the target. After taking wind speed and direction into account the technicians determined how many revolutions the engine needed to make before it reached the target. When the counter reached the preset value a device shut down the engine and detached the cardboard wings.

The aircraft achieved success on seven of 24 test flights, starting in September 1918, although it had an unfortunate tendency to circle the airfield after launch, and once even buzzed a crowd of dignitaries and top Army brass observers. 

Hap Arnold with General Pershing
Nevertheless, the Army contracted to build 75 Bugs and dispatched then-Major Hap Arnold to Europe to convince General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, to employ them against Germany. The war ended before the Bug made its combat debut. 

A total of 45 Bugs were produced at an estimated cost of $275,000. Despite the short lifespan of the Kettering Bug, it became the precursor to modern-day cruise missiles, and the U.S. Army Air Service continued to experiment with UAVs into the 1920s. Today a full-size reproduction of the Kettering Bug can be found at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

General Hap Arnold would go on to be recognized as one of the architects of the aviation component of the Allied victory in the Second World War. He never, however, forgot the promise of the Kettering Bug for which he had been the Army's principal champion in the early conflict, and, at the end of World War II, General Henry H. “Hap” Ar­nold made a startling prediction: “We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all...Take everything you’ve learned about aviation in war, throw it out of the window, and let’s go to work on tomorrow’s aviation. It will be different from anything the world has ever seen.”

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of the USAF

From the WWI Centennial Commission and the History Nets Websites

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